Champagne corks were to be popped Saturday at McMenamins Edgefield in honor of the establishment’s 100th year.
The fete was undoubtedly a far cry from when Edgefield opened in 1911. Folks these day come from far and wide to partake of its myriad amenities.
In 1911, however, it was the last place anyone wanted to wind up. It was then and through most of its existence the Multnomah County Poor Farm.
Its history precedes by several decades its location just south of Halsey Street on the western edge of Troutdale. The poor farm originally sat on 160 acres off Canyon Road in Portland’s West Hills. [Eds. Note – The poor farm on Canyon Road was called “Hillside Farm”.]
The farm owed its existence to an early social conscience of the Oregon Legislature, which in 1854 ordained that provisions be made for the care of those who either couldn’t or wouldn’t care for themselves. However, in a legislative fiat still often invoked today, the lawmakers ordered counties not only to assume that responsibility but pay for it as well.
Multnomah County’s first response to the edict was to dole out $15 a month to care for indigent citizens. The first such, in 1855, went to support Henry Marshall, “an insane pauper,” according to Troutdale historian Sharon Nesbit.
That system proved financially daunting. So, in 1868 the county paid $4,000 for the Canyon Road site and christened it Hillside Farm. Able residents could earn their keep, and some of their endeavors even turned a modest profit.
A January 1886 report noted, “The sheriff gets 42.85 cents a day for furnishing his prisoners two meals a day, while the poor farm furnishes three meals a day to its charges at a cost of 33.08 cents.”
Moreover, the report continued, the sheriff was “out” for “provisions and the cost of his cook and jailer,” while the county farm “pays its own help, superintendent, matron, clothing (which the sheriff does not), and the cost of maintenance is only $7.35 per month, as against $12.85 paid to the sheriff.”
As Portland housing marched up the West Hills, county heads grew ever more cognizant of the farm’s land value. In 1909 they sold it for $154,000 and moved the poor farm to Troutdale.
“The people who opened this institution in 1911 were pioneers in social welfare, forward-thinking, ‘back-to-the-land’ liberals who earnestly believed in self-sufficiency through farming and the benefits of fresh air and country living,” Nesbit wrote in her 1995 history of the farm. “From its start, Multnomah County Poor Farm was a model of its type.”
And profitable. In 1914 it turned a profit of more than $2,000; in 1918, $7,600.
Nesbit says her favorite stories “are always the characters who lived there. It was not your ordinary nursing home. These were the castoffs of society. They had no families. … They ended up there and made a home out of it.”
“Lucky Staehly, paralyzed because of a broken neck, parked his wheelchair at the side of Halsey Street daily and sat shirtless waving at motorists. Tanned, handsome and grinning, he was a favorite among two generations of local children who brought him Cokes and ice cream and waved back.”
As the years passed, the farm became less than viable either as a poor farm or a nursing home. In 1975 county commissioners ordered it phased out. In 1982 the last three patients were moved.
The county was “hot to tear it down,” Nesbit said. The Troutdale Historical Society had other ideas.
“We were not the most popular people in town and were criticized for even suggesting it might be a good idea to save it,” she said. “The county laughed at us. We had to fight our own planning commission. We had good support from the City Council, but had to fight through a very balky city staff who wanted to tear it down.”
In the end, historical society forces won. It didn’t hurt that the county found it more costly to dispose of the building’s asbestos roof than the property was worth.
It sat neglected for several years until “it was just a wreck,” Nesbit said. A couple of developers known for historic preservation shuddered and said no thanks.
Then along came Mike McMenamin of the McMenamin brothers, known for redeveloping old properties into popular bars, restaurants and microbreweries. “And, of course, he was just delighted with it,” Nesbit said.
He and his brother, Brian, gave Troutdale what is now the edgy and popular McMenamins Edgefield instead of a shopping mall or an industrial park.